Stupid and Contagious
By Steve Dube
By Arianna Georgi
By William Juseck
Stupid and Contagious
John Barth fell to the floor and started spinning. Only minutes prior, he had
been speaking on Freitag's Triangle in a lecture at A______ University. He had
been diagramming the rising action of "Lost in the Funhouse." But now, he was
spinning. Half of the audience was appalled. The other half started spinning.
When he arrived in New York City in September 2002, Johannes Gutenberg was
known, almost exclusively, as the inventor of the printing press, perhaps the most
revolutionary invention of the past thousand years. By the end of the month, and
after being awarded honors by the President and foreign dignitaries, and after
winning every scientific prize there was, Gutenberg's previous accomplishment
Gutenberg knew as little about what had happened as those who would
subsequently ask him. All he knew was that one day he had disappeared and found
himself awake in New York City, somehow with knowledge of the world that he
had found himself in, but also ignorant of many things. He instinctively opened his
jacket, reached in his left pocket, and found a neatly folded manila envelope.
Inside, there was a piece of yellow paper and a deep, green fiber. The message was
in hot, red colors - CURE FOR ALL DISEASES. PLEASE SPRINKLE ON THE
GROUND. As a man of science, Gutenberg didn't know what to think; he decided
to sprinkle the substance on the ground. The effect of Gutenberg's actions was
instantaneous. Hospitals around the world reported miraculous recoveries. The
children's ward at the Delphi hospital was filled with once-lame kids who were
now able to walk around. The secretary with the common cold, about to drive to
the doctor's office for useless antibiotics, instead headed to work. The Center for
Disease Control noted with happy dismay that their disease samples had
disappeared. The United States of America immediately set up a taskforce to try to
explain what had happened. The answer was impossible to find, but Gutenberg
himself was discovered easily enough as he had started glowing neon green. He
was picked up by the NYPD and was brought to meet the President. Gutenberg
explained all that he knew and the President was both happy and unsatisfied.
Then everyone, fearless of disease, started having sex. Even John Barth started
having sex. And Gutenberg. And Ralph Waldo Emerson. Apparently, Gutenberg
was only the first person to be resurrected, and this type of resurrection favored
celebrities. So the new world began - sexfilled and famous.
But with sex, there are always consequences; nine months after Gutenberg's
arrival, there was a new problem. People were still getting sick, no, not in the
truest sense of the word, they weren't simply getting something, they were
becoming something, something different, something against the very fiber of what
they had previously been, and these changes came suddenly. Reality outran
apprehension; the world stood still as it changed. Barth and others got stupid.
Louis Farrakhan was amazed to find that he had turned white. David Duke woke
up noticing the reverse condition. Jerry Falwell started wearing a pink triangle on
his sleeve. The Daughters of the American Revolution ceased to exist. Some of
them became Russian revolutionaries. Some of them became communists. Others
knew the secrets of the IRA inside and out. Parents and daughters and sons ceased
to acknowledge any familial bond. It was the heart of baseball season, Mets vs.
Yankees, but Shea Stadium was silent. The Mets fans found themselves wearing
Braves jerseys or John Rocker t-shirts. The Yankees fans were wishing they had
never traded away Babe Ruth. The players themselves lost all their athletic
abilities and some of them even started thinking about Freitag's Triangle.
For months after these initial events, chaos ruled. There were no ideologies that
weren't shifting. There were no personal preferences or relationships that
remained. There were no obsessions that didn't turn into indifference. There were
no meanings that stayed meaningful. Everything was chaos, people strived to eat
and drink; this plague spread quickly, and its consequences seemed irreversible.
This situation went on without change for more than five months. People died
from lack of food and nourishment. In this new world, it wasn't so easy to survive.
After the end of seven months, John Barth was in California, Emerson was in
Texas, and Gutenberg was in Florida. At the exact same moment, each of their
noses started twitching and seemed to be leading them in some sort of direction.
They started walking or driving or something, and they, somehow, all arrived in
New York City on the 11th of February, 2004. Gutenberg was smiling when he
arrived (he seemed to be the only one who hadn't lost his identity), plus someone
had just complemented him on his glow. That person's favorite color had been
blue, but now it was green. Barth walked in with a lollipop in his hand and was
happy that the sky was blue. Emerson came late and gratuitously apologized. He
was sorry he had been tardy. He was just aiming to please.
Back to the top
"You know, it's pretty easy to kill someone at random," Abe says, munching on
a large piece of celery and rolling onto his stomach. "The police have a really hard time
putting it together, if it's random." He looks at me to see my response. It's forensics
week on the Learning Channel and Abe's been watching these shows about murder
before bed every night. I hate them, mainly because they make me hate things I used to
love. For instance, last night, we watched one about a trucker who murdered prostitutes.
I always felt an intrinsic thrill at the sound of a big rig rumbling through the night. I liked
to think about them as modern day ships. Like ships passing in the night, I liked to think
to myself when they rolled by me on my way home from the late shift. Now I was
constantly going to have to think about how some guy had built a torture chamber in the
back of his cab complete with chains drilled into the wall. Trucks, ruined. I punch Abe's
feet off of my pillow and set the laundry down at the top of the bed.
"So I guess that means I could never get away with murdering you," I say,
unwrapping our clothes from the thin plastic square of the laundromat. The building Abe
and I live in has no washer or dryer, so we take our clothes to the laundromat next door,
where you pay for laundry by the pound. I used to take them to the other laundromat and
do it myself, when it was my week to pay, but after a while I got lazy and tired of feeling
envious of Abe's perfect square laundry. Now I take it next door too. Everyday at noon
a truck comes and picks up the piles of clothes. I know because Abe stayed home sick
from school one day and saw it. Before then I had always just assumed that the woman
there who wore a pin that said hello in Spanish and English did it herself. Instead the
clothes go somewhere mysterious and come back smelling mostly like cardboard and
slightly like lavender. I hold Abe's boxers up to my nose. This week there is something
different though. Abe looks at me strangely.
"No, you couldn't murder me," he continues. "Well, of course, you could, but it
would be pretty hard for you to get away with. Take this man for instance, he shoved his
wife off the top of their high rise and tried to claim that she slipped. But they got him.
She fought him, and she had paint from the railing under her nails."
On these shows the solution is always very simple. It makes it seem like real
life and Murder She Wrote aren't all that different, like most things do have a simple
answer. I am distracted watching the crumbs of Abe's rice cake getting on our bed. I
forget to ask what the man pushing his wife off the balcony really has to do with me
murdering him. Then I think about murdering him. He chews smugly on his rice cake as
the man cries in court and admits that he's guilty. A month ago he would have been
eating Oreo cookies, but now we are on a diet. Abe is the only one losing weight. We
had to go on a diet, because since we started living together last fall, we both have
steadily put on weight.
"You two are like one of those disgusting married couples," my friend Geena
said before our first spring class. "You know those people that are so in love they get fat
from it." Maybe, I agreed, but I think it has to do with our general laziness. Once you
stop peeing with the door closed in front of someone, it's hard to feel self-conscious
putting on a few pounds. I throw Abe's socks at him.
"Do the socks," I say. It is impossible to understand why the laundry service
folds my thong underwear very carefully but does not fold the socks. Abe reaches over
and starts doing them. He doesn't complain because he knows how much I abhor socks.
I hate the feel and look of them. Last night when they showed a man who had murdered
a woman and then cut off her ears and hid them in socks, I felt happy for once. I already
knew socks were bad news, now maybe other people would realize it too.
"Serial murders," the man says on TV, "like to keep parts of their victims as
souvenirs, so police knew, if they looked around Jeb's apartment, they might find a clue,
a lock of hair, or photographs of the twelve girls he had murdered." We were onto a new
killer now. I thought about souvenirs. The last souvenir I had gotten was on the last trip
to Vegas Abe and me took. He had gotten me a pen that had a girl who took off her
clothes when you turned it upside down. It said Las Vegas on it, so I counted it as a
souvenir. Truthfully though, I had pressured him into buying it for me. I asked him to
and he refused. But then when he was buying bottled water and an Almond Joy at the
store, I slid it onto the counter and he hadn't objected. I liked to call it a present.
"If I killed you," I say, "I would take that mole off your leg as a souvenir." Abe
makes a face to let me know he is disgusted. What does he expect me to talk about when
we're watching murder shows all the time. I raise my eyebrows at him. "Either your
mole, or your left ear." Abe is missing the bottom half of his left ear. When he was only
four years old, he was lying by the pool in his aunt's backyard and a dog bit it off.
Sometimes he tells people that he can't hear so well because of the ear and asks them to
repeat things, but that is a lie. He's just the kind of person who's embarrassed to ask
people to tell things to him twice. I know Abe is not going to respond. He touches the
ear self-consciously with his fingers and turns his attention back to the TV. I sit on the
edge of the bed and think about my last conversation with Geena. I was telling her about
how Abe started eating more vegetables because he hated them and then went overboard,
eating vegetables for every meal and refusing to touch anything else, acting vaguely self-
righteous about it. He finally stopped when he had gotten some kind of food poisoning
from not washing them well enough and eating them raw. He had thrown up chunks of
carrot and celery and then after two days of seeing his vegetable diet regurgitated, went
off them again. Geena rolled her eyes at me and I stopped mid-story.
"What?" I said.
"Do you have any stories that don't involve you and Abe?" Geena asked. She's
just jealous I thought automatically, like one of those contestants on a talk show.
"Well I do live with him," I said.
"You live him," Geena said.
Abe and I had been living together for nearly a year now. At first we were the
envy of all of our friends. Two college seniors with our own deluxe apartment in the
building across town where most of the graduate students live. We didn't even have to
pay rent. When we moved in, I pictured us giving elaborate parties. A Halloween party
with a 1980's theme, a trailer trash party with loads of Pabst Blue Ribbon and BBQ
wings, a "fiesta" with margaritas and Mexican themed food. When Abe and I moved in, I
had bragged to everyone about my elaborate parties where the campus police would
never bust us. But I never got around to putting on any of these parties. I couldn't think
of the parties without thinking of all the possible problems. What if no one wanted to
come? Or what if too many people came?
The apartment was Abe's older brother's old apartment. His parents had bought
it for him when he had gone to this college eight years ago. They were so proud of him
for getting his act together and going in the first place that they would have given him
anything. Besides, his psychiatrist said that it would be better if he didn't have to deal
with the stress of having a roommate. I tried not to think about Abe's brother being here,
but now suddenly I did. I wondered how often Abe thought about it.
"Do you want to go running tomorrow morning?" Abe asks, setting his alarm
clock. I shrug my shoulders at him. Not really, I think, but I don't say anything when I
watch Abe set the clock for 6:30 anyway. Lately we have been getting up in the morning
before school and running around the park. At first I was better at it than Abe, but he
gradually caught up. Now when we run, our breath echoes together in the blue light. The
fact that we often breathe simultaneously is something I try to ignore. He checks the
clock one last time like I knew he would, then he turns off the TV and his light and rolls
"Good night," he says. Abe can do that, just watch these murder shows and then
go to bad. They get me thinking. I take off the shirt I had been wearing and put on a
fresh laundry shirt. It doesn't smell very fresh. I wonder if Abe's brother had ever gone
to the laundromat next door. I pictured the lady watching him with her calm eyes. Abe's
brother, with his thin sad face and the lady in the laundromat with her calm eyes and
Abe's parents had kept the apartment even after his brother had killed himself.
They had it cleaned and then left it untouched for the next four years. Then they offered
it to Abe when he went to college here. It's always that way with property when
someone dies. People either get rid of it right away or keep it untouched. When I was
in third grade, I had a friend whose brother drowned. His parents left his room just as it
was. Years later, when I was in middle school, my friend led me and some other kids
through that room towards the attic to play Spin the Bottle. I looked down at the floor,
and her brother's socks lay in the same pile where they had been the day before he
drowned. Sometimes people just have a hard time cleaning up. That was why on these
murder shows, they were so often able to get DNA samples even years after the person
died. The mother had saved her hairbrush with the hair in it, or the room she slept in was
untouched. I was glad Abe's parents had cleaned the apartment.
"You and Abe are just having a hyper-advanced relationship because you both
have had such tragedy in your lives," Geena said when we got together freshman year. It
was true, we had met at a survivors of suicide meeting. The group discouraged people
there from dating for just that reason, but we didn't care. Eventually we had left the
group. We didn't need the group.
I roll over to see if Abe is still awake. I scratch his back, and he murmurs softly.
There are things I want to tell him, I realize, but I have almost forgotten how to talk to
him in sentences that aren't jokes or references to the TV shows we watch. With Abe
and I, it was never about talking. In fact, now that we live together we probably speak
less than twenty sentences a day to each other. Even in the beginning, it wasn't about
talking. It was about sitting together, or watching TV together, or eating. I felt like I was
in a glamorous but sad silent movie. We would walk together through the woods. "I get
so lonely sometimes," the black screen would read in between shots of Abe looking at
me. "Me too," the screen would say right before I looked up in wonder as snow began to
When someone you love kills themselves, you stop talking to strangers after a
while because if you do talk to anyone long enough they will reveal that someone they
loved killed themselves too. After my mom shot herself, neighbors we had known for
years stopped by with casseroles and then whispered that their uncle had killed himself or
that their sister took her own life. Suddenly you were in some sort of terrible club whose
members all looked at you with a mixture of pity and triumph.
"My uncle killed himself too," they would say, as if they were helping relieve
your shame. I always tried to give these people a look. I wasn't ashamed at all. I mean,
it wasn't like we were living in the 1950's.
This morning when I walked by the laundromat on the way to school, the
woman who worked there was sitting outside on the stoop smoking a cigarette, looking
faraway. I wanted to stop to talk with her. I wanted to tell her things about my life and
about Abe, about how confused I was by the whole thing. I wanted to ask her whether or
not thought it was unnatural, our relationship. Weird how we still knew so little about
each other, and yet all we wanted to do was sit together and watch TV. I wanted to
confess to her that it was really my fault about the parties. I just couldn't stand the
thought of having so many people around, I couldn't even stand having Geena around
anymore or anyone but Abe. I wanted to ask her if it was love.
"Hi," I said tentatively, stopping in front of her. She looked up quickly and then
whipped the corner of her eye with the back of the hand that was smoking. She stared at
me coldly for a second and then nodded and looked away, as if dismissing me. I
continued down the road.
I press both of my hands onto Abe's back and feel him breathe.
"It's just another form of giving up, you and Abe," Geena said when I told her I
was moving in with Abe. "You're like an alcoholic that seeks out other people
who only want to drink all the time, except with you and Abe you found each other
so you can hide from the whole world and not have to make friends with anyone or
tell them your big secret." I wonder when the last time I talked to Geena was.
"Abe," I whisper and he murmurs, rolling over so that his hand is resting against
my leg like a dead bird. "We should have Geena over." I say, but he doesn't respond.
Then I stare at the ceiling and wonder about Abe and murder and loss and the
laundromat, and I wonder, is it love, and what I am losing if it isn't.
Back to the top
For the first time in three days my wife, Lauren, is asleep. Her face is buried in
a throw pillow. I'm surprised it's dry. Her feet are across my lap, so I can't move.
I've resigned myself to watch infomercials and static intermittently until she wakes
up. The house is wheezing.
Lauren was in the bathroom, and I was in bed. She opened the door with wide
eyes. She asked me if I had heard what she said. I said no. She said that maybe
we should try to go out somewhere tomorrow. I said that sounds like a good idea.
She woke up the next day at two and cried till six. We moved from couch to bed to
couch until she fell asleep with her feet on my lap. The ghosts won't bother her for
a few hours.
She wakes in a daze. She says she doesn't know what's real anymore. I say I
know. She asks me if I'm hungry. I say you know I'm not. She says she'll make
something anyway. We haven't left the house in three weeks.
Lauren cooked some kind of stew. I didn't ask her what was in it, because I
probably wouldn't have liked what I heard. We're almost out of food, but she's
doing what she can until we can get someone to bring us more.
The pictures of Daniel have eyes. We've been turning them around, so they
can't watch us while we eat. We finish eating at about dawn. She says I look
awful. I nod. I ask her if she wants to come to bed with me. We go to bed. She's
lying next to me. She's staring at the wall. An ear breaks through the brown
surface of her hair. She turns to me. I have nothing to say.
We were in the part of the pool where the water was four feet deep. Lauren was
folding our towels by the deep end as Daniel and I played the game with neon
sticks. One of us would throw them, and then the other would fetch them. We'd
time each other. I let him win.
I wake up about noon. Lauren is looking at the wall again. I rub her shoulder.
She abruptly sits up at the side of the bed before going to the bathroom. The pillow
is stippled with moisture.
Sometimes we can't find each other. I look for Lauren, but I can't find her until
I give up looking. She says the same thing happens to her. When we find each
other, we say we won't leave. But whenever one of us gets a glass of water, the
other person disappears. We call out. We only find each other when we give up
Lauren said she couldn't find the door today. I told her I didn't know where it
was anymore either. She started crying. I put my arms around her and squeezed.
She squeezed back. She pulled away and looked at me. Her eyes were tired and
wet. Her cheeks and lips were sallow. She asked me why I stopped crying over
the last few days. I told her I didn't know why. Then I told her it was because this
feeling in my chest stopped me from crying. It was a dull ache attached to my ribs.
Before it was in my eyes, and I cried. Now it was in my chest, and I didn't. She
seemed to understand.
Today we went into the basement. We took out Daniel's old toys and didn't say
anything. I put on a baseball mitt that didn't fit. Lauren built a house out of
blocks. I took two army men and put them inside the little house. Lauren
accidentally knocked it with her hand and the men were crushed underneath. We
put the toys away.
Lauren is sitting at the table looking at an old magazine but not reading it. I tell
her she's losing too much weight. She says she'll eat something in a little bit.
When she's finished staring at the magazines, she walks into the hallway and
disappears into the house.
Two months ago, she was beautiful. Her eyes were alive. She made brownies
for Daniel. She made all the beds in the house. She threw her head back and
laughed a hoarse laugh. She used to be so beautiful, but now she's a husk. We're
both husks. I can see another pair of ribs every time I look.
The light in the dining room goes out while we're eating. I look at her across
the room even though I can't see her. I hear the metallic ding of her fork hitting the
table. I hear her sleeves rustle across the oak's grain. I can't see her, but I know
her hands are covering her face, over her eyes. The lights come back on, and she's
not even at the table. I was wrong.
My watch stops, so I don't know how long it is before I see her sitting at the foot
of the stairs. Her eyes are glass. I ask if she wants to go to bed. She nods and
stands up. I go up first and extend my hand. I don't look back, but I feel her
fingers entwine with mine. We ascend a few steps and her hand slips away. I turn
around and see the steps divide and multiply. She goes further down or I go further
up. We part.
I look out of the bedroom window, but I can't see anything. It's always dark out
now. I turn around and see Lauren in bed. She's asleep. I didn't hear her come in.
I slide in next to her. I lean over her and kiss her cheek. She doesn't react. I fall
back into the bed with a little too much force to see if she responds. She doesn't.
The pool was drained and hasn't been used since. Sometimes I go there in
dreams. It's covered in a blue tarp. When I touch it, the blue stays on me like a
bruise. I touch it and it hurts. And I wake up. I expect the bruise to be on my hand
when I look, but it's not. I roll over and see if Lauren is up, but she's gone. I rub
the impression her body left in the mattress. It's warm. I walk into the hallway,
but I don't see her. I hear a glass shatter downstairs. As I walk down, I see one of
the living room windows is broken, and a small pool of water is forming beneath it.
It is raining.
New staircases keep appearing. Lauren can't find her way to the living room
anymore. I keep calling her, but she can't find the way.
Back to the top
© 2003 the Minetta Review
All rights revert to the author upon publication.